Wednesday, March 5, 2014


This book begins with a tender, wistful series of events that culminate with an adult son going home to visit his ailing and dying father. Familiar friends and out of touch siblings reconnect. Remembrances are shared, gossip is exchanged, and forgotten memories come back to light. I would say all of these experiences are all too human, but they are all shared by a family of chickens.

Elmer is set in a fictional world where chickens have suddenly developed advanced intelligence and status as citizens equal to humans. Of course, painful memories of the past where their kin were farmed, butchered, and eaten colors their behavior and interactions, and sometimes human-chicken relations are tense.
Jake on his soapbox.
The main character Jake Gallo is sort of a malcontent.
Note for educators: This book contains a few obscenities.
He lives apart from his family and has some resentment directed toward his movie star brother Freddie. While home, Jake learns much about his father Elmer, with whom he also had a contentious relationship. His attitude is tempered some when he is given a book his dad had been writing. The book contains personal accounts about the early days of consciousness, the struggles of chickens gaining equal rights with humanity, and Elmer's fears/joys of getting married and having a family.

Elmer's account is very personal, and in many ways this book is a story about family dynamics and growing up. However it is also a clever analogue of civil rights struggles, with a huge population trying to gain equality, having to deal with prejudice and changing social norms. It is difficult not to think about the similarities between real-world homophobia and the AIDS epidemic and the bird flu scare in this book, when distrust got mixed in with survivalism, with horrific consequences. Seeing chickens in these roles just makes the sense of dehumanization that often accompanies such events and struggles that much more palpable. It is also not a quick jump to see issues of race, class, and religion in the way that chickens had to assimilate themselves into workplaces, social institutions, and even marriages.
Jake is not so accepting when his sister falls in love with a homo sapiens.
I found so much in this book to think about, and in addition to the magnificent plot and characters that I have mentioned above, I think that  this book is memorable for its fantastically evocative and detailed art. These chickens express so much emotion facially and through their actions. The pages are so well composed and rich with meaning. They reflect as much joy, horror, love, violence, hatred, growth, and courage as any historical epic, and it is difficult for me not to agree with the cover blurb from Adam David, "It's the Great Filipino Novel, with chickens." This book is far-ranging, dense but not obtuse, and I daresay universally affecting.

The creator of this impressive mix of world building and parable is Gerry Alanguilan. Alanguin has been making comics since the mid 1990s, and he is known for his original series Wasted as well as inking a plethora of comics for Marvel and DC. He also has a YouTube channel where his "Hey Baby" video has received more than 5 million views at this point. He speaks more about his career as well as his work on Elmer in this interview.

Elmer was nominated for an Eisner Award, and has received many accolades. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and noted it was "a peculiar but engaging work that deserves attention." CBR's Greg Burgas called it "a brilliant comic book – an original way to examine prejudice, in turns wryly amusing and terrifyingly tragic." Library Journal summed up, "Strongly recommended for teens and up in classrooms as well as libraries." I think the book is superbly executed graphically, portraying powerful themes and situations that linger with me still.

Elmer has its own dedicated blog. It was published in the US by Slave Labor Graphics. They have a book trailer and more information about it here.


  1. Seems like a brilliant concept.

    I'll keep my eye out for it. Thanks for the tip.

    Have long of a read was it? And is it safe for kids?

  2. It is a collection of 4 comic books, so about 120 pages or so. There is some violence and swearing, so I don't think it is for younger readers. I think it is an excellent book though, and offers many useful ways of thinking about social issues.